What if Think Tanks Were Operated by the Public?

This interview revolves around Special Programs Think Tank – an experimental futures-visioning workshop led by  Elliott P. Montgomery and Chris Woebken of The Extrapolation Factory in collaboration with Foresight Center at the Parliament of Estonia. The workshop, held at Estonian Academy of Arts in Summer 2019, focused on think tanks or, organisations that are known for influencing the course of societies.

What seems like a pertinent departure to our conversation today is the evolving role of think tanks or policy institutes in government and civil societies. How do you see yourself serving the policy-makers or, perhaps more importantly, the public, in terms of the research you do?

Meelis Kitsing (MK): Foresight Centre is a think tank at the Estonian Parliament. We are funded by the Estonian Parliament, and one of the main reasons why we are there is to help policy-makers have a broader and more long-term view of issues that are strategically important for Estonia. What is of strategic importance, however, is an ongoing conversation. It is a conversation with the policy-makers, MPs, and agencies in the executive branch, but also with the civic society, and the industry. So this is what defines us. And I guess the reason why we are there or, our mission is that, in Estonia, policy-making is often relatively short-term and relatively ad hoc. Even if there are development plans or long-term strategy documents then they tend to be centered on a single vision, which often does not get implemented. They are a little bit like utopian documents – wishful thinking – where people write down everything they want to write about certain issues. When funding is being distributed these documents are often not considered, because the money is distributed according to a budget allocated for one year. We also have a budget strategy document for four years. So in that sense Estonia lacks alternative views of futures that might be important for us in the long-term – at least 10-15 years into the future.

Johanna Vallistu (JK): I also see that we have a role in introducing key questions in areas that nobody else touches upon. For example, demographic trends and the population decline in Estonia. Last year, as part of our Labor Market 2035 project, we introduced the idea that it might not be an entirely negative scenario that these numbers are declining. In our research it turned out that the ratio of the retired people and the youngsters to working age population will stay relatively the same. So we proposed that population decline might actually not be as serious of a problem as we think it is.

MK: Obviously we want to contribute to a more evidence-based practice and one way to do that is to bridge the scientific community and the policy-makers. Sometimes policy-makers approach us and ask us to study this issue or that issue. But then you go to the researchers, who tell you that those issues have been studied already, and there are that many papers published on them. However, these papers do not reach the policy-makers, because they are in a language that policy-makers do not understand nor have time to read. I think that in that sense we are a little bit like mediators, who have to keep in mind that even when we talk about the MPs, they are a very heterogeneous community.

As a design-based research studio The Extrapolation Factory develops methods for collaboratively impacting future scenarios analogously to think tanks.

Elliott P. Montgomery (EM): We do not think of ourselves as a think tank per se. Chris and I both come from design backgrounds. And so we are bringing this approach that lives oftentimes within design communities and design academia into a space of future studies, futures research, think tank operations etc. We are interested in the overlap space between what think tanks do, and how designers work, and how designers think, so certainly these guys [The Foresight Centre] are the experts. We have great respect for them, but we are also interested in thinking about these kind of interstitial, overlap spaces. So that said I think for us a lot of our work has been focused on how the mediation that Meelis just mentioned can happen between the public and the policy-makers, who are developing these propositions for possible versions of futures, and how that ends up being a two-way street. There is a conversation going both directions. It is not just a unidirectional top down explanation of what will happen, but rather a dialogue about the various things that could happen.

Chris Woebken (CW): We are very much interested in experimenting with how to set up a discourse between civic organizations and the public. I think there is a need for this, an urgency.

EM: I think also this is a – I was going to say a pivotal moment – I do not know that it is a pivotal moment necessarily – but it is certainly a moment of transition in the ecosystem of think tanks in which we have seen a real transformation from think tanks that are non-partisan, operating with this much more of a social benefit agenda in mind to many think tanks, especially in the States now, which are operating with a much more partisan, much more focused, and biased interest, and whose funding is coming from very specific organizations or individuals, who are trying to advance a certain agenda. And so it is really fascinating for us to also see how The Foresight Centre operates, and how this type of work that you are doing plays out into policy-making. And it also feels like a moment in which research organizations – we consider ourselves a research studio – question the operation methods that think tanks and policy informing type of groups are using. It is a piece of the puzzle that I think needs to be developed further.  

CW: And what if we could all just adopt think tank ways of working? Or, then, think about the ways in which research is published, changes, if more of the population adopted think tank methods, and how this all could be feed back not just into communities but also to the city government.

Why is it necessary to make the process of thinking about futures more accessible or, as you have put it earlier, democratize the practice of futuring, to take the tools that are used in think tanks and perhaps extend those into public contexts?

EM: First of all we see this as an experiment. So we are not sure that this is something that needs to be done, but we feel that it is a very worthwhile and interesting experiment. But that said I think there is an argument to be made for the types of perspectives and voices that may not be represented in the work that is being done in think tanks. Not out of any malicious nor ill intent, but rather just the simple nature of bias that we all live with on a day-to-day basis. And so as more members of the public are engaging in these types of discussions we end up with these perspectives on possible versions of futures that are much more representative of the broader spectrum of humanity. So I think that is the first piece. I think the second one has to do with engagement. It has been shown in the past that if you have wide public as part of the process, they are more likely to want make that process work and be part of it, as opposed to standing back and watching and waiting for something to happen. So we think that direct engagement in the creative stages, in the early-research stages, is important to having a unified and driven community, whether that is at the city level, the neighborhood level, or the state level, the national level etc.

The people who could make a difference – industry leaders, think tanks, policy-makers – are they actually listening to these critical speculations?

MK: I think some of them are and others are not. The debate is often non-existent – we are either for or against something. I believe the scenario-based approach and getting people involved makes more of us realize that we have more choice, more options. In that sense the process itself is important. It was already in 1972 that Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and a political scientist, introduced the concept of co-production of public goods. So I think of the process itself – of getting the local community involved to think about the futures – as a process of co-creation. The creation of public goods is, then, not just left for the government, the city government, but getting everybody involved. There are never any guarantees in terms of the outcome but, at least, hopefully, it broadens the horizons of some of us and, in that sense, also serves an educational purpose.

CW: I think it also about re-imagining how ideas are shared. Usually when you go to a conference – when everyone is coming together for an important social event – and ideas are being presented, then this tends to be a very static engagement with those ideas. I think there is a lot that can be done from an engagement perspective, both in terms of how you negotiate and experience these ideas. A PowerPoint presentation is not the best way to connect to these ideas. So as a research-based design studio we are also really interested in experimenting with the ways in which such ideas or futures can be communicated.

JV: Last week I had a chance to go to an unconference in Singapore. Everyone came together and there was a blank whiteboard, where you could write down a topic you wanted to discuss and then be joined by those who were interested in it and, of course, came with their own agendas. I led a discussion on the Labor Market scenarios for 2035. Something that we would still have to acknowledge in Estonia is that we have generations who have never been introduced to these formats of discussion. They have not been brought up in the society of dialogue, which is why I think we still have to discover the think tank format that works best for us. We have some experience with platforms of participatory democracy, and these are not being used, really. I think it’s partly because of this lack of a tradition of engagement. So perhaps the digital format is not the solution?

MK: I think it also depends on whether it is an abstract law that you pose to a government portal and people are interested in reading it or whether it is something that is essential for the neighborhood right now. For instance, Ostrom’s study on co-production is written on the example of policing in Los Angeles. Policing is a public good. If we take neighborhood watch then this is basically the co-production of the public good. The areas where we have a neighborhood watch makes it easier for police to offer their services. And this is something that is very close to the people. In terms of futures-thinking and scenarios – perhaps people would be much more engaged, also on some digital platforms, if it were about the future of Kalamaja or of my own neighborhood, rather than about the government document on Labor Market 2035 scenarios, which are very difficult for many people to grasp?

To continue with the Labor Market 2035 scenarios. The Special Programs Think Tank we operated here at Estonian Academy of Arts in collaboration with you over the course of the past five days used the scenarios to undertake a futures exercise and operate an independent, publicly-led think tank. How were the Labor Market scenarios for 2035 initially developed?

JV: These scenarios were part of a research project Labor Market 2035. The scenario-building process actually started off with understanding the trends and their potential disruptive effects so we looked more thoroughly into the topics that we see are currently changing the trajectory to understand where the change might come from. We then asked a group of experts to map these trends. We also conducted a two-day scenario workshop with some of the experts and opinion leaders as a result of which we formed the scenario framework, already knowing the trends, knowing the data, for Labor Market 2035. Three to four months following the workshop, we had some follow-up sessions and discussions. This is how the scenarios were developed. We also introduced them in various seminars, asking for input from a wider audience before we wrote them down, although, basically, Labour Market 2035 is a result of expert-led scenario planning.

As opposed to the government-driven policy-making processes, how did the Special Programs Think Tank – a form of think tanking, where people in the think tank are the public – operate?

CW: To begin with, I think it would be interesting here to look at what think tank as a term denotes. To me, think tank has slightly military connotation.

EM: The etymology of think tank actually has to do with a slang term that was used for the brain. To describe a room of people using their think tanks. So that is actually where the name comes from. It is interesting, but the word thinkery was used in Aristotle’s time as a way to describe these gatherings of wise people and experts and so they would get together and hold these thinkeries. And oftentimes this is talked about as being one of the early predecessors of the modern day think tank. So that the notion of the think tank is quite old. Some trace it back as early as the Chinese in 300 BCE and then we see these various examples coming forward from there. So certainly there is the military style of think tank that Chris is talking about which takes on prevalence in the late 1940s 50s…

MK: in the form of the defense and security think tank RAND Corporation

EM: …certainly in the States.

MK: What you are saying about the evolving role of think tanks is very interesting in a sense that, in my understanding, a number of policy think tanks emerged, because it was felt that university was too constraining of an environment or out of touch with reality. So they would go and set up their own think tanks to have a more accommodating platform. We could also ask why is the work that some of the very established think tanks such as Brookings or RAND Corporation do not being currently done by universities, because they have their own press, their own journals, and so on. But I think that what you are saying is that think tank as a concept is constantly evolving and maybe also some of the think tanks have transformed into universities, and therefore become constraining for futures-visioning. So it is useful to have different think tank typologies and also to experiment with how to make think tanks more participatory.

Was the Special Programs that undertook some of the work currently being done by think tanks able to collectively envision more socially constructive, more preferable, futures for themselves based on the Labor Market 2035 scenarios?

EM: The Special Programs Think Tank for us was an opportunity to look at how some of the work that happens, especially at the very early stages of a think tank process, or a future studies process, might operate differently if it is conducted by members of the public.

So the first step that we ask the participants in this Think Tank to undertake was to conduct a signal scanning exercise. In the signal scanning, what they are doing, is really trying to find these emerging events that could disrupt or transform parts of society as we understand them. And if an expert does this they are relying on a certain perspective. Of course, when a public member does this they are bringing their own perspective, too. And so the types of signals that we saw coming up in the signal scan with The Special Programs was fascinating, because it looked quite different than what you would see if you were to go to RAND, for instance. Then the next step for us was to analyze the signals that had been scanned, and to start to build them into the polarity matrix that’s oftentimes used in this type of exercise.

And so I think in the Labor Market 2035 scenarios that Foresight Centre developed the matrix feels very well thought out. It makes a lot of sense and it maps very directly back into policy-making territory. Some of the matrices that were developed by the participants in The Special Programs Think Tank were very abstract and almost poetic in nature. They were moving into these spaces that were actually quite difficult to wrap your head around, but they were coming from these other understandings of what is interesting and what’s important as we imagined possible futures.

You have run workshops with very diverse communities exploring the notion of preferable futures. How much of a take-up of such think tank methods as signals scanning, STEEP, or Futures Wheels analysis there has been? 

EM: What is also very interesting is not only to have the public do this type of futures-visioning in a short, cursory format, but rather to have a long form and continued engagement with the kind of work that is currently being done by futures practitioners, strategy groups, think tanks etc. This is a transition to the point at which futures thinking becomes part of our culture. It is part of the way we interact as societies and within our communities not only in these special moments.

We were running a workshop in Moscow at the Strelka Institute and showing one of the diagrams that we showed very frequently in our workshops that proposes this lexicon of notions of possible futures from the improbable through the plausible to the probable vision of the possible and the preferable and we were going through this workshop and one of the participants stopped us and said, “Hold on, in Russian, I’m not sure that we have these exact same words to talk about the various types of futures.” And he was saying that at least, in his experience, he is not sure that there are these exact same words in Russian to talk about the various types of futures. He was saying that there is more of a singular version of futures, which is just that it is going to happen. As an American, this was really interesting and surprising to me and just demonstrated how differently we can look at what futures might be like and how we act on futures.

JV: I think we should introduce the think tank methods in kindergarten already. Children usually have to draw their preferable futures. We should actually introduce this approach to think about the different futures at an early age so that we would have this whole generation growing up already knowing that there are multitudes of futures…

CW: a Kindergarten Think Tank…

JV: Yes! We very often omit kids when doing future projections or scenarios.

CW: Futures-visioning should be practiced regularly so that it would not remain merely a report that comes out every two years. If there is really a way to prototype and find ways to produce these visions as something that can be communicated, even if they are unfinished, as an open question, then this is something that we are hoping could happen more.

EM: Part of what Chris and I are really interested in is this notion that if we open up the availability to tools and methods and processes for envisioning and developing futures that people might actually be more likely to take part in participatory budgeting or rule-making, because instead of then being asked what do you want and then feeling blank and kind of having this moment of emptiness or pause they have a toolkit to go to and to start working through. This really comes down to what we talk about as being the advancement of agency over future is. How do we help people feel like they have some strategy or steps to take to act on futures instead of just being asked very bluntly what should the future look like, which is a very difficult question for anybody.

Has the purpose of the Special Programs Think tank been ultimately to generate useful ideas, insights, and possibilities, which will, in some way, help us to participate more actively as citizens? 

CW: The Special Programs Think Tank has been a means to imagine alternatives for civic governance through storytelling, of what it might be like to live in this world if we decided to take on and develop a particular scenario, or if some societal shift happened. So I think it is a very different kind of freedom also to explore how the world could look like if we were to have the capacity to develop those Special Programs as a government or some other similar body. And, really, these are simply questions to be asked. Some of the scenarios that The Special Programs Think Tank developed might be such that we really don’t want them to happen, but they should have their opportunity to be visualized.

EM: We are really interested in this notion of discursive design, which was put forth by Bruce and Stephanie Tharp. This idea that there is design work that needs to be done that actually shapes discussions and that sets up these frameworks for having more nuanced and involved conversations around the choices we could make as a society and as subsets of society. And so taking that language of discursive design and bringing it into the context of think tanks I think there is a really nice fit between the two. I think you saw that in the scenarios that Special Programs Think Tank were working on as well. There may be some parts of those scenarios that were more desirable, but you cannot just take one scenario, and immediately say that this is obviously the right direction to go. You need to process them, and if there are good scenarios, they help you to do that. That is actually kind of the power of this tool.

If we look at examples from the field of speculative critical design then we find a number of prototypes or futures-visioning scenarios that are developed not in a predictive way, but as a way to understand the social, cultural, and ethical implications of emerging technologies, for example. SCD has therefore been years ahead of the discussions taking place today about the possibilities for the technology industry and AI.

EM: That point should almost be the first point made in an interview like this – none of this work is meant to predict any future. And that can oftentimes be misleading in public contexts, where the notion of future studies is first introduced. Members of the public hear these terms and they think, well, this is impossible. Why would anybody spend time working on this and so oftentimes, when we start a workshop, we operate very carefully to ensure that we communicate that we are never trying to predict, but rather, trying to propose possibilities, these pathways, and that actually it is fundamentally difficult, or impossible, to work toward a version of a future that you cannot see, and so part of our work is to visualize these versions of futures to assess them, and then step back, and critique them, and understand whether we want to work toward them, or not. And then we can build a plan or a strategy that helps us move toward that version of a future.

The four Labor Market scenarios for 2035 are each markedly different. Even if none of us can know with any certainty what the world will look like in 2035, it’s very likely that the facets of the four scenarios will feature in some way and at some time. What would you say are some of the most fundamental questions we have to ask about the future of work?

JV: Yes, it is true that the scenarios are different. And, of course, we cannot predict the future, but one of the main ideas of the scenarios is to make us think about the effects of automation. Another very important issue for Estonia throughout the scenarios is migration, and talent, the human resource needed to employ technology to innovate. And, of course, innovation, as a background issue, is also there as well as questions such as how do we ensure the economic development and international competitiveness of Estonia. We also put a lot of emphasis on new forms of employment, and how it can play out differently in each of the four scenarios. According to some worlds, project-based and own account work could lead to great results and more options of self-realization, but also to precariousness of the labor force.

And what were some of the most interesting early-stage disruptions or, something that could drastically transform the society that the Special Programs Think Tank was able to identify over the course of the past five days?

EM: We have one think tank that is very interested in a societal shift toward Romanticism versus a kind of continuation of a Techno-Utopianism. So there is this question of whether societies will develop a distrust of technologies versus kind of putting more faith into technology. And it probably resonates closely to one of the axes in the scenarios of the Foresight Centre. But this one is framed, as I said earlier, a little bit more poetically, I guess, than policy-oriented, it might be difficult to develop policy around a romantic society, but it’s an interesting one. There is a another think tank that is looking at the transition of a society toward an embrace of Body Augmentation and kind of the so-called Cyborg Movement of society and looking at whether we might move more toward that way of behaving or actually step back and really resist that and have a more “naturalistic” notion of what humanity can be and looks like. And so these types of framings, I think, move away from some of the most immediate challenges to work and how work operates in the future. They might not be the most pressing issues, but they do open up interesting conversation spaces that introduce a series of possibilities that are potentially less probable, but maybe push our minds to wander in new directions.

JV: Well, I have to admit that actually in the process of forming the Labor Market 2035 scenarios we had a lot of ideas for the two dimensions of change or the axes. We ended up with this macroeconomic view to the employment market, but the ability to cope with the technological change was a real candidate for us, too.

EM: Another polarity matrix that shows up in the work that was done in the Special Programs Think Tank has to do with climate change. And I think there are a couple different scenarios that are being developed around the future in which climate change impacts are more drastic versus a future where those impacts are much less drastic and that seems to be the scenario that the members of this Think Tank were very passionate about, and could certainly impact the way work happens going forward. But maybe that politicizes a question like the future of work in a way that becomes challenging or potentially dangerous in a policy context.

I would be curious to hear whether you brought climate issues into your conversations or if you decided to set them to the side for the moment? How did you think about that?

JV: Climate change has been very strongly debated after we came up with these scenarios. The topic itself is a very trendy one at this point of time. It has always been there, but received even more attention with climate strikes and Greta Thunberg.

MK: I would say the climate change scenario is actually related to immigration, especially in Europe. In the Labor Market 2035 report, we discuss attitudes towards immigration not in Estonia, but in Europe. Climate change is a fact, and there will be more and more people from Africa, who need to leave their country. Not directly, but climate issues are considered in the report.

Although think tanks are supposed to generate new visions for everyday life, it is sometimes also argued that think tanks may actually be preventing us thinking of new visions of how society could be organized. I am here also thinking back on the map The Extrapolation Factory introduced at the very beginning of The Special Programs, showing the distribution of think tanks globally as a provocative way to think about where the policy futures are coming from. And we are far from an equal global distribution of futures.

MK: Absolutely. I mean I think this is actually an interesting observation from the foresight perspective as well because we should not only pay attention to the so-called strong signals – climate change is a strong signal, and automation is a strong signal – but we should also think about the weak signals. This year I have been seriously thinking of how or from where do we get the weak signals. Is it sufficient that I will read some website of some other foresight organization in the UK or the US or in Singapore? The problem there is that we tend to sort of think all alike. So it should be something completely different for the weak signals, as The Extrapolation Factory defines them. And I think in that sense having more diversity in this futures-visioning community, and having more diverse sources of information, is really fundamental.

And it’s not necessarily always the government, who has to initiate…

MK: Absolutely

…as designers, as citizens, we should also use some of our time for civic purposes, set our own agendas, and take on a more critical role more often.

EM: As Chris and I were walking to Estonian Academy of Arts today we came across one of the Special Programs Think Tanks outdoors, photographing scenes from their scenario in public space, where these scenarios were being enacted and lived through. And that type of behavior, I think, although it might be just necessary for the design activity, could actually be an interesting way to share some of the early-stage concepts that are being developed in a think tank. 

Interviewed by Anna-Liisa Laarits

This interview has been published in an abridged version in Sirp 20/9/2019

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Faculty of Design